goBeyondProfit CEO Interviews: Colin Connolly, President and CEO of Cousins Properties


Friday, October 20th, 2023

In part 2 of our interview with Colin Connolly, President and CEO of Cousins Properties, we explored their historic involvement with the East Lake Community as well as their more recent efforts to pay their civic rent in Atlanta.

Let’s talk about Cousins role in developing East Lake Community and how it influences the company’s current community engagement strategy?

As I mentioned, Cousins has been focused on social issues for decades. Our founder Tom Cousins’ vision and involvement in the East Lake neighborhood is a great example of how Cousins intentionally partners in creating vibrant communities where those who might not have had the same chances at life could see an ecosystem around them that fosters success. It’s a model for investing not only in the success of individual communities, but in Atlanta as a whole.

To be clear the community development work that built the East Lake Community has always been done out of the East Lake Foundation, which is operated by the Cousins family. Mr. Cousins saw a neighborhood that at the time was plagued by violence, drugs, and lack of opportunity. But my sense is that two things caught his attention 1) he understood that a cradle-to-grave ecosystem could make a difference in people’s lives, and he envisioned creating an environment that would give the children of East Lake real opportunity and 2) he understood that vibrant neighborhoods support and attract talent in Atlanta. And a vibrant Atlanta with greater opportunity and vibrant neighborhoods was good business ultimately for Cousins Properties. And I think that vision is part of the reason why Atlanta is now a top destination for corporate relocation.

The East Lake model of a purpose-built community has been a huge success. Success in creating a mixed income approach where middle- and higher-income levels live in neighborhoods alongside people from historically lower income levels. Today, there are fifteen communities around the country that have employed the East Lake “purpose-built communities” model.  In fact, you’re seeing it again in Atlanta with the West Side Future Fund that is leveraging lessons learned from the East Lake effort to accomplish similar goals on the West Side of Atlanta. 

Serving our community has always been important to us at Cousins. We strive to make an impact not only on the skyline, but also have a positive impact in our communities. For instance, we continue the Cousins commitment to the East Lake Community by hosting an annual internship program with the East Lake Drew Charter School. Year-over-year, we are in awe of the caliber of students coming out of the school. It’s a fulfillment of Tom Cousin’s vision for giving children from an area that was once the poorest in the city real opportunity.

More broadly, every year we ask our teams across the sunbelt what’s important to them in their market and then we come together as a company, across our six different markets, to serve together in what we call our “CuzWeCare Week.” We call it a CuzWeCare Week because we spend the entire week not only giving money (which is important) but also spending time in the community at different organizations. It’s been rewarding for all of us.

CuzWeCare Week has an impact on the community, but it also builds camaraderie amongst our team members. We missed that kind of thing during COVID. In a recent survey, I asked the teams what we needed to do differently, and they responded that they wanted to do more community service, which is pretty amazing.

You talk about this idea of paying “civic rent.” Could give us a recent example?

We’ve always talked about our obligation as a company to pay our civic rent. In addition to community service, it’s important to Cousins and our shareholders that we are willing and available to help.

For instance, recently there was an effort underway to try to break up the city of Atlanta and create a new city of Buckhead. Our corporate headquarters is in Buckhead, and we are largest property taxpayers in the proposed new city. The root of the problem in that moment was crime. Our perspective was that the “right thing to do” was to focus on the root problem. So, we donated space and helped raise private funds to build a neighborhood district police station in the middle of Buckhead that gave the Atlanta Police Department an expanded presence. It gave officers the chance to build relationships and create an environment where people feel safer.

Building relationships was a fundamental part of our efforts. We worked collaboratively with Mayor Dickens, the Atlanta Police Department, and the Buckhead Coalition, and the precinct has helped build the confidence of residents that we are headed in the right direction under the Mayor’s leadership. Honestly, it was just another example of how Cousins operates knowing that what’s good for business is doing the right thing.

One last thing, as a commercial property company do you think this dramatic shift in office space use is a permanent reality or temporary reaction?

We do not think that the reactions to COVID are the long-term perspective on being together in an office setting. I think the positive take way from all of this is going to be flexibility. The type of flexibility that used to be reserved for only the more senior leadership of a company is now more broadly shared and I think that’s great. Everybody is generally back in the office at Cousins, but there’s a new level of understanding that things can come up in life that require a little more flexibility. 

In my opinion, people are always going to want to be together, to collaborate, to build. Before COVID, people generally wanted to come together, to work together, to build a culture, collaborate and be creative. Today’s knowledge worker ultimately wants to do that in an environment that’s welcoming, exciting, dynamic. In early 2020, while many people focused on the notion that we were all going to be remote forever, our perspective was what we call a flight-to-quality. Rather than spending time focused on solving the work-from-home concern, we focused on selling about $1.2 billion of our oldest vintage commodity properties and reinvesting that $1.2 billion into new, exciting properties in some of the best locations in the best neighborhoods across the sunbelt. 

We decided we needed to pivot away from what we call old and tall and focus on new and small, neighborhoods like Atlanta Belt Line and Ponce City Market. We invested in properties where people want to spend their day. Everything has a more welcoming feel inside with more collaborative space. Equally important is everything outside. Are you in an exciting neighborhood with restaurant options, bars, health clubs and energy on the street? We stayed focused and invested in properties and in neighborhoods that have energy that attracts people to leave their house to go spend the day and that has served us well.